Political Parties: Old Concepts and New Challenges

By Richard Gunther; José Ramón Montero et al. | Go to book overview

3 Still the Age of Catch-Allism? Volksparteien and Parteienstaat in Crisis and Re-equilibration

Hans-Jürgen Puhle

Political parties are at the core of democracy. Unlike interest groups and even the institutions of interest intermediation, they do not merely represent a specific sector of the polity. Along with the voters (or the citizens as the sovereign 'people'), parties and their elected representatives are the key actors in the most basic procedure that essentially constitutes democracy: the election of the legislature and (directly or indirectly) the government. 1 In a democratic regime, political parties are the principal mediators between the voters and their interests, on the one hand, and the institutions of decision-making, on the other. They are the channels of political interaction between 'civil society' (in its broader Lockean sense) and 'the state'. Hence the study of political parties is an essential contribution to the study of democracy, and theories on political parties, in particular, can contribute to democratic theory. As these theories focus on structures and processes of intermediation, they not only involve the specific problems of a particular type of democracy, but speak more generally to current interpretations of the relationship between state and society, and therefore are also linked to the debates in social theory and theory of society. 2

Political parties have also played a crucial role in the transitions from authoritarian rule during the 'third wave' of democratization in the twentieth century (Huntington 1991), which began in Southern Europe in 1974, and spread subsequently to Latin America and East Asia, and finally, in 1989, to post-communist transformations of a 'fourth wave' in Eastern and East Central Europe. Here parties have in many ways been different from parties in longer established 'Western' democracies. They have followed different patterns of development and behaviour, and have fulfilled additional functions in extraordinary constellations usually characterized by uncertainty, a low degree of democratic institutionalization, and a relative weakness of the

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